Thursday, December 31, 2009


There are three Bay Islands of Honduras, of which Utila is the nearest to the coast, and the first one you come to from the Rio Dulce. It, like the other Bay Islands, is part of an underground mountain range, fringed by coral reefs. Utila has signs of volcanic activity at Pumpkin Hill, but most of the island has a limestone base, and is, as the chart describes it, low and swampy. It's about 8 1/2 miles long and not more than 3 miles wide. We rode around a goodly portion of it on our folding bikes and I had a leisurely climb of Pumpkin Hill.

The town of Utila has two parts: the main concrete road runs along the shore for traffic consisting of golf carts, ATVs, bicycles, strollers, skateboards, and, just to mix things up, the occasional pickup truck or van. There's a ferry dock; that's how everything gets here.

And there are restaurants and bars, hardware stores and groceries, cell phone stores and ATMs, all the usual paraphernalia of modern life, but small, the size appropriate to a place with maybe 7-8000 people. Special to Utila and the Bay Islands are dive shops and realtors, both with an eye toward the modern galleons bearing cash in their pockets. It's a pleasant island tending along the lines of the Abacos, or Carriacou, or Bequia, and popular with backpacker/divers.

Up the hill is the village proper, while the gringos are building out of town mostly along the coast, mowing down the mangroves and clearcutting the groundcover for their stateside- sized casas.  But apparently the locals too have been building for some time:
For more than a century, islanders have continuously augmented their beach front by "making land". The original shoreline of Utila, only a few yards deep from the high water mark, has been extended in many places an additional thirty to forty yards or more by filling in fenced rectangles of water with refuse and broken coral. Houses that were poised on pilings over eight feet of water some sixty or seventy years ago now sit on terra firma and the process goes on--giving portions of the harbor a Venetian effect--even though the cost is high in money and labor. Land making in the swamp areas has been pursued in like manner, one barrio in the community being named Holland to commemorate its origin through reclamation.

Hiding from a south and west wind that made a mess of the main harbor, we anchored a few days between Utila and a cay-community at SucSuc and Pigeon Cays. Buildings huddle together on crooked pilings over land barely above sea level, and every porch is a dock. This, I'm told, was in fact the site of Utila's earliest British settlement. Can't figure out why anyone would chose this damp pied-a-terre when they could have  the hillside, now or then. But I am coming to suspect that the presence of no-see-'ums had something to do with it.
Another surprise was being greeted in English, a pretty and picturesque form of it. Come to find out that the Bay Islands were British during the early part of the 1800s; a lot of the settlers had names like Jones and McNab, Bush and Cooper, Jackson and Thompson, and several came via the Cayman Islands. Although Honduras took formal possession around 1860, it is said that some residents didn't realize anything had changed until Queen Victoria died in 1901. Here's how they saw it two hundred years ago.
Gradually mainland Hondurans have come out to the Bay Islands, but we still met people who spoke only one language or the other. And then there's a Garifuna presence - these are the slaves forcibly removed from St. Vincent in the 1790s and dumped in the Bay Islands, from whence they have spread to Belize and coastal Honduras. I think they have a language of their own, but use the other two. I tried asking a Garifuna woman for something in Spanish, and as she was showing me, she finally said "Don't you speak English?"

One of the neatest places I've ever seen is a hotel/restaurant/bar called the Jade Seahorse. Owned by, I'm told, glass bead artists from Israel, the entire property is a riot of color and texture, not just the glass grottoes and encrustations, but the cabins and carpentry as well. "Makes me want to go home and get artsy" said Doug. "I seem to be a little conservative."

Friday, December 25, 2009


When Santa comes to Roatan, it's not a silent night, and probably not particularly holy either. At least at French Harbor, his acolytes began at midnight, setting off firecrackers and bottle rockets, and cranking up the music. From the V-berth, those jingle bells are heavy on bass, and Santa sounds like he's in an increasingly frantic race.

Until now, I had been sleeping the sleep of the well-fed. What a feast we had with friends on another boat: G called it 'Christmas lunch' although we ate at sundown on Christmas Eve. Turkey, cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, 'courgettes', and more. It all looked so nice on the plate and was cooked to perfection. And then, when we were sated, out came the Christmas pudding - nothing Jello about it, but rather an thick, dark, concentrated mound, anembarras de richesse with a primal connection via the taste buds back through Dickens and Austen to the medieval heart of darkness from whence, in my mind anyhow, the Christmas holiday originates. Anything that happens on Christmas day will be an anti-climax to this meal!

Out in the main cabin of Galivant, there are no stockings, no decorations, no milk and cookies. At least I didn't put them there! I know for a fact that Santa brought Doug a small bottle of fou-fou rum, and for me, a nice chunk of real Parmesan cheese, as he has for several years now.

The weather here at present is fine. We'll have a swim along the reef in the morning, then another feast; this time a cruiser's pot luck featuring grilled turkey, the potatoes I've been assigned to bring, and more (I hope), plus 'lots of desserts'. Then this day too will fade into the ranks of Christmases past. To all, I wish the best of the season, wherever you may be.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lionfish. They're Here.


Making casual conversation in a dive shop at West End, Roatan, I commented on a poster requesting info on lionfish Pterois volitans/miles sightings, and was astonished by the response.

Oh yes, the store personnel said, that newsletter is from October, when we had about fifty, but we had a lot more last month. In the last couple months it's suddenly gotten much worse. We've seen them while snorkeling in 4 feet of water, and way down deep, and everywhere in between. They went on to theorize that a large number of fertilized eggs, or juvenile fish, had drifted from sites further east in the Caribbean.

In case this issue has flown beneath your radar, the story is that lionfish, natives to the Pacific, probably escaped from a Florida aquarium during Hurricane Andrew. They've been coming for some time, and now, according to this map, they're everywhere.

These fish might have trouble overwintering in colder areas, but the guys in the dive shop told me in Roatan's waters, they spawn 30,000 eggs at a time and can breed monthly. They eat the juveniles of numerous reef species, including the ones who keep the reef clean, compete for resources, and have a nasty venomous spine which makes them unattractive to the human fishers. In fact, if you do get stung, you probably won't die, but you will be in pain for a month, and the best remedy is to pour hot water on the site. Lionfish are said to be tasty, if you cut out the poison sac under the spine. They apparently just sit still and look at you, so aren't particularly hard to get.

I'm certain it's a terrible thing, but there are so many terrible things of the same nature. The Burmese python in Florida, the giant carp approaching the Great Lakes, just for starters. A person could begin to suffer from Terrible Thing Overload Syndrome.

What particularly interested me was the response. "Does everyone carry spear guns to shoot them with on sight?" I asked. No, ma'am, they do not. There seem to be three reasons why not. One, they don't want spear guns in the marine park, although presently the divemaster is allowed to have one on the boat. Two, they are there to conserve and preserve, and blasting fish in front of paying scuba divers is not the ideal image. Three, they, or someone in the larger reef management world, are concerned about humane treatment of the fish. The recommended method is to catch the fish - this involves a plastic bag behind the fish, and a stick in front of the fish - and put it in ice water to numb it before it actually dies.

I can just see it now.

In Bonaire I gather they're sending out fish-killing patrols. Maybe they're doing the same here and just not admitting it. I hope so. They do hope to keep the marine park free of lionfish, but I don't think the pooper-scooper approach is going to work.

UPDATE: I met a woman involved in reef statistics who told me that a lot of the sightings were of juveniles, 1-3 inches, so you can see why they might not be spear gun material, and that they are not at this moment spewing 30,000 eggs per month. Even the intermediates, 5-6 inches, can be caught in a net, if you happen to be carrying one. But there were also a few larger fish of reproductive age. And of course, right up there with death and taxes are time and sex!
I also know snorkelers who found a lionfish on the reef in Belize. They thought it was one of the most attractive fish they had ever seen. They'll go back out next time planning to shoot to kill, but with regret.
I also noticed that the first result on my Google search was about keeping lionfish in aquariums.

Here's a little more detail on what's so terrible about these fish. The entire website is worth reading if you're interested in the issue.
Recent research by Albins and Hixon (2008) provides the first evidence of negative effects of lionfish on native Atlantic coral-reef fishes. The recruitment of coral-reef fishes was studied during the 2007 recruitment period (July-August) on small patch reefs in the Bahamas with and without a single lionfish. Over the five week period, net recruitment (i.e., accumulation of new juvenile fishes via settlement of larvae) was reduced by 79% on reefs with lionfish compared to reefs without lionfish. Stomach content analyses and observations of feeding behavior showed that reductions in native fish density were almost certainly due to predation by lionfish. ... In addition, lionfish have the potential to decrease the abundance of ecologically important species such as parrotfish and other herbivorous fishes that keep seaweeds and macroalgae from overgrowing corals.
from the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species site of the USGS

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Night Passages

A yacht named Kersti, was holed and sank the other night while on a passage from San Blas to Cartagena. The crew in their liferaft was picked up by another yacht sailing in company. But the boat is gone, and with it, I'm sure, the confidence and serenity of the crew, as well as all their personal stuff.

Then, a day later came the report from another vessel which had in view a "large white ship's mooring" mooring measuring about 15 feet x 20 feet, drifting around on the rhumb line from San Blas to Cartagena. The report was radioed in and apparently will reach a US Coast Guard vessel in the area, which will deal with the obstacle.

I remember one of the most frightening nights of my life - years ago, in Arion, somewhere in mid-Atlantic. We were rollicking along, headlong into one of the darkest nights (but starriest) imaginable. All I could think of was a report I'd heard about a number of refrigerated containers that had supposedly been swept off the deck of a cargo ship in a storm. I was certain that the sharp corner of one was hovering about two feet below the surface and we would be upon it at any moment. I was miserable until sunrise, and then, although the containers may still have been there, I regained my balance.

I've buried those particular containers under a pile of other things I might worry about. The other night we were moving along the coast of mainland Honduras on a mainly clear but moonless night. There was a rock and a reefy area to avoid, and an isolated rain squall, whose boundaries I checked on radar. As it passed, a persistent little blip remained just behind us, and as I looked for it, a light went on. Apparently we had nearly run over an unlit fishing boat, provoking him into showing a light. A few minutes later another light suddenly appeared maybe a quarter mile off.

Other items for the worry list include logs washed down rivers, and whales, (although if I hit a whale I'd consider that it had the right-of-way and I had just drawn the wrong card )

Of course we stand watches all night, on the coast and offshore. But it's impossible to see everything. We place a lot of faith in the odds that whatever danger lurks ahead is not directly ahead on the little line we draw across the ocean. For the men in the unlit lancha it worked out, for Kersti, it didn't. For us, well, it remains to be seen. I'm expecting the best.

UPDATE: follow these links for a bit more information about Kersti
UPDATE: read about a more recent incident of container ships going overboard here:

Arab proverb to the effect that you don't truly own anything that you can lose at sea.
UPDATE: read about 30 containers lost in the Gulf Stream off Key West. Refrigerated containers have insulation which keeps them floating.